Friday, March 31, 2017

Supernatural Friday: Fool Me Once; Shame on You!

April Fools' Day has been also called All Fools' Day.  Its origins are uncertain, though some see it as a celebration related to the turn of the seasons, while others believe it stems from the adoption of a new calendar.

Ancient cultures that includes the Romans and Hindus, celebrated New Year's Day on or around April 1. It closely followed the vernal equinox (March 20th or March 21st.)

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar—the Gregorian calendar—to replace the old Julian calendar. The new calendar called for New Year's Day to be celebrated Jan. 1. Supposedly, many people either refused to accept the new date or did not learn about it, but continued to celebrate New Year's Day on April 1. Other people made fun of these traditionalists, and sent them on "fool's errands,” trying to trick them into believing something false. Eventually, playing jokes on April 1st spread throughout Europe.

Problem with this is it doesn't fully account for the spread of April Fools' Day to other European countries. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted by England until 1752, for example, but April Fools' Day was already well established there by that point. There’s also no direct historical evidence for this explanation, only conjecture made recently.

Another explanation of the origins of April Fools' Day was provided by Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University. He said that the practice began during the reign of Constantine, when a group of court jesters and fools told the Roman emperor that they could do a better job of running the empire. Constantine was amused by this and allowed a jester named Kugel to be king for one day. Kugel passed an edict calling for absurdity on that day, making it an annual event. Brought to the public's attention in an Associated Press article printed by many newspapers in 1983, there seemed to be one problem: Boskin made the whole thing up! It took a couple of weeks for the AP to realize that they'd been victims of an April Fools' joke.

Many different cultures have had days of foolishness around the start of April. The Romans had a festival named Hilaria on March 25, rejoicing in the resurrection of Attis. The Hindu calendar has Holi, and the Jewish calendar has Purim. The French call April 1 "Poisson d'Avril," or "April Fish," where French children might tape a picture of a fish on the back of their schoolmates and yell out "Poisson d'Avril" when the prank is discovered.

Monday, March 20, 2017

It's the First Day of Spring!

Most of us think of Spring in terms of flowers, grass needing mowing, birds chirping in the early morning, and warmer temperature, there’s more to it than that. It’s also about the equinox.

The word equinox is derived from the Latin words meaning “equal night.” There are two equinoxes every year – in March and September– when the sun shines directly on the equator and the length of day and night is nearly equal. Seasons are opposite on either side of the equator, so the equinox in March is also known as the "spring equinox" in the northern hemisphere. However, in the southern hemisphere, it's known as the "autumnal (fall) equinox". The Southern Hemisphere: (Australia, New Zealand, South America, Southern Africa). The Northern Hemisphere: (USA, Central America, Canada, Europe, Asia, northern Africa).

The spring and fall equinoxes are the only dates with equal daylight and dark as the Sun crosses the celestial equator—12 hours – all over the world. At the equinoxes, the tilt of Earth relative to the Sun is zero, which means that Earth’s axis neither points toward nor away from the Sun.

But, though accepted, it isn't entirely true. Equinoxes don't have exactly 12 hours of daylight though. On these two days, the geometric center of the sun is above the horizon for 12 hours, and one might think this would indicate that the length of the daylight would be the same. Sunrise is defined as the instant when the upper edge of the sun's disk becomes visible above the horizon – not when the center of the sun is visible. In the same sense, sunset refers to the moment the upper edge disappears below the horizon. At both instances, the center of the sun is below the horizon, and therefore the equinox day lasts a little longer than 12 hours. The Sun is visible longer than 12 hours on an equinox because the Earth's atmosphere refracts sunlight. Refraction causes the Sun’s upper edge to be visible from Earth several minutes before the edge reaches the horizon. In the evening, we can see the sun for several minutes after it has dipped under the horizon. This causes every day on Earth, and not just the equinoxes, to appear at least 6 minutes longer than it does.

The March equinox occurs the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator. It’s an imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator – from south to north. This happens either on March 19, 20, or 21 every year. On any other day of the year, the Earth's axis tilts a little away from or towards the sun. But on the two equinoxes, the Earth's axis neither tilts away from nor towards the sun.

Equinoxes – along with solstices – have been celebrated in cultures all over the world for long as we have written history. One of the most famous ancient Spring equinox celebrations was the Mayan sacrificial ritual by the main pyramid in Chichen Itza, Mexico.

In the northern hemisphere, the March equinox marks the start of spring and has long been celebrated as a time of rebirth. Many cultures and religions celebrate or observe holidays and festivals around the March equinox, like the Easter and Passover. There is also some weird traditions connected to the Spring Equinox.

Such as:
An ancient Chinese belief says that you can stand an egg on its end on the first day of spring.
The theory goes that, due to the sun's equidistant position between the poles of the earth at the time of the equinox, special gravitational forces apply.
This is, of course, nonsense. But it does still make for a fun party game - and you can save your eggs to paint on Easter Day.
Holi is an ancient Hindu festival celebrating the victory of good over evil. It takes place each year around the time of the vernal equinox.
Known as the "festival of colors", it is celebrated by tossing vibrant coloured powders onto each other and dancing in the streets.
The symbolic plant of the equinox in Druidry is the trefoil or shamrock, which is also customarily worn on St. Patrick's Day.
The three leaves shaped like hearts were associated with the Triple Goddess of Celtic mythology, otherwise known as the "Three Morgans"
The shamrock is thought to be symbolic of the regenerative powers of nature.
The spring equinox is symbolic of rebirth, renewal, and growth, and in ancient Italy, it was traditional for women to plant seeds in the gardens of Adonis on this day.
The custom persists in Sicily, where women plant seeds of grains - lentils, fennel, lettuce or flowers - in baskets and pots.
When they sprout, the stalks are tied with red ribbons and the flowers are placed on graves on Good Friday, symbolising the triumph of life over death.
Many of the world's ancient monuments were built as astrological calendars, to map the movement of the Sun over the course of the year.
The equinox is therefore a great time to visit these monuments, as they are often aligned to make the most of the Sun's unique position in the sky.
At Stonehenge in Wiltshire, the sun can be seen rising precisely between two stones, while at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, the rising sun transforms one edge of the giant pyramid into a blazing serpent, representing the Mayan god Kukulcan.

What does spring mean to you. And how do you celebrate it?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Supernatural Friday: St Patrick Day's Legends

Once upon a time, blue was the color to wear. That's right, not green, but blue! Because blue was the color of Ireland's flag. It was changed to green most likely due to the shamrock.

St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland. Except that would be hard, as there never been snakes in Ireland. Separated from England and the Continent thousands of years ago, Ireland emerged from the Ice Age snake-free.

And forget that cute little guy on the Lucky Charms cereal box. Leprechauns are not cute or nice. Like many fairies, they were brutish and nasty, besides being short too. They were the grumpy, insufferable, alcoholic elves in employ of other fairies. They made shows for the fairies (why they're called cobblers) and guarded their treasure vigorously. Unfortunately to their eternal frustration, their treasure was revealed by rainbows. Next time you watch that horror film, Leprechaun, the actor plays the true fey being.

But no matter if myth or truth, enjoy the day and dance a little jig. Just don't overdo the green beer and Irish food.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Supernatural Friday: Spiders Are Icky, or Spider Myths

March 14th in 2017 is National Spider Day. For spiders, that is halleluiah time. For me, a person who is not crazy about arachnids, a day for the buggers is something I can avoid or won't celebrate. Especially when I was bitten by a brown recluse years ago, and it took two months of antibiotics to get myself back to normal. After that, I jokingly said, that spiders were out to get me.

To be honest, spiders have been around a long, long time. Spiders themselves likely evolved around 200 million years ago, though the oldest spider fossil dates back just 130 million years.

Anyway, the brown recluse, is said to have earned a terrible reputation for its deadly bite. Doctors often blame the species for spider bites, even in states where the brown recluse isn’t present.

Then there is the pinktoe tarantula. It’s a South American spider with pink-tipped legs. The pinktoe spider comes from the rainforest, and fly. Other tarantulas might be killed if dropped a few feet, these ones “can essentially parachute down” from the treetops.

New spiders are still being discovered. One species of spiders were found when spelunkers came upon a previously unknown family in southern Oregon. These were dubbed Trogloraptor, or cave robbers.
Spiders are arachnids, but that word doesn’t just mean spider. The eleven arachnid orders include scorpions, ticks, etc.; spiders are just one order of the class Arachnida. It is thought that all spiders have eight legs, but all arachnids, not just spiders, have four pairs of legs. And no, they are not insects.  All spiders make silk but only about half make a web (silk structure to catch prey); others hunt or wait for prey. "Daddy-longlegs" means harvestman (not a spider), crane fly (an insect) or pholcid spider, depending on who's talking! So, it's really meaningless.  Books say spiders don't eat solids but "suck the juices" of their prey. False. All spiders digest solids externally with vomited enzymes. Spiders in sinks and bathtubs come down the walls, attracted by water. They cannot come up through the drains!  Outdoor spiders are not drawn to indoor habitats where they can't survive. Indoor spiders are different species, called house spiders. The well-known structure and behavior of solpugids (sometimes called "camel spiders") makes their alleged human-flesh consumption absurd. Tall tales alleging that "camel spiders" (which aren't spiders) have super-powers and do horrible things to men and camels are all phony.

In Germany and Ukraine, it is tradition to include spiders and webs in Christmas tree decorations, due to the association between tinsel decorations and the spider web strands.

Spider Myths and Legends

Spiders have inspired good books, like Charlotte’s Web, but they also are in myths and legends. Like the story of the Buddha and a spider you can read and enjoy HERE.

Stepping on a spider will bring some catastrophe like bad weather or a broken back. Not true.

A 1999 internet hoax claimed that a deadly exotic spider lurked underneath toilet seats in planes and around airports. Everything in the story is fake.

Another story was told of someone buying a cactus at a local plant nursery. It exploded once the person had arrived home and baby tarantulas came from within the remains, scattering everywhere! It’s a full-fledged urban passed from person to person by word-of-mouth and been around the world several times. Oddly enough, those repeating this story, stating that it happened to someone else that they knew personally. No one knows how the story started, but the event described never happened. Tarantulas do not inject their eggs into cactus plants, hatching tarantula egg sacs do not explode, and baby tarantulas are quite harmless in any case.

There is a myth that baby spiders from bite wounds, a very widespread and persistent tales of spider eggs hatching under human skin, contradicting what is known of spider behavior and abilities.  In a surprisingly widespread urban legend, a nameless woman is bitten by a spider (usually on her cheek) while on vacation. She later develops a swelling, from which, in due course, baby spiders emerge. The venom must have transformed into eggs. Actually, no actual case like this can be found anywhere in scientific or medical literature. Other than in horror fiction or scary horror flicks.

Brown recluses seem to accumulate myths. In 2005 a man reported hearing that they acquired their toxicity through a mutation due to World War II atomic-bomb research. That’s nonsense – the toxic component in recluse venom is also present in distant relatives that diverged many millions of years ago. Then there’s the rumor about a supposed cross between a black widow and a brown recluse. These species are so unrelated, it would be like a cross between a whale and a walrus. Another myth is the one where one person heard from a Missouri ER doctor that a brown recluse "would return to the person he had bitten" — in 2013!

"A spider by day is quite okay, but a spider at night should cause you flight" was common among early 20th century European immigrants to New York City. More recently someone else explained this as a mistranslation of a German saying: "Spinnen am Morgen bringt Kummer und Sorgen…" The word Spinnen means both spinning (the usual translation) and spiders.

Finally, a strange urban legend: From time to time, spiders breed by cloning. That is, the mother makes several clones of herself inside her body, and when the young ones grow they start to eat the mother until the mother is just an empty shell. You see this sometimes when you try to smash a spider and out of the smashed spider, hundreds of baby spiders creep out. At least three later correspondents related this to a real experience of stepping on a female wolf spider carrying a brood of young on her back. Surviving young would scatter from the maternal corpse, but they weren't inside her.

In Southwestern tribes, spiders are associated with the culturally important art of weaving, and wise spider goddesses give their assistance to the people as culture heroes. Many Plains tribes, like the Lakota, feature Spider as a rough trickster god, ranging from an inappropriate, but entertaining rogue in some stories to a violent and slightly deranged criminal in others. To the Osage, spiders were a special symbol of patience and endurance. To the Blackfoot, they represented intelligence and skillfulness. The Ojibwe associated spider webs with their dream catchers, a type of traditional hand-woven Ojibwe craft meant to filter out bad dreams which has become popular among many different tribes today.  In Hopi creation myth, Spider Woman is goddess of the earth. She, together with other gods, formed the first man and woman out of clay. The Navajo connect Spider Grandmother and the weaving of webs with the creation of the world. 

The Greek Myth of Arachne
The mortal Arachne was gifted in the art of weaving fine cloth and tapestries, and studied under the goddess Athena, herself a master at weaving and pottery. Arachne’s work was so beautiful, and her talent so great, that word of her weaving spread far and wide. Eventually, pride and arrogance lead Arachne to boast that her work was even better than Athena’s. In a contest to determine who was the better artist – the mortal or the goddess - Arachne wove a tapestry depicting the gods in a bad light, detailing their debauchery and foolishness. The goddess Athena was furious and, in a rage, destroyed Arachne’s work.

Arachne, horrified and ashamed to realize where her hubris had taken her, hanged herself. Athena, feeling that the mortal had learned the error of challenging the gods, turned the hanging rope into web, and Arachne into a spider, so she might weave beautiful creations for all time. This is the origin of the word arachnid, a term we use for spiders to this day.

Other Spider Myths of the World 

in ancient India, it is written that a large spider wove the web that is our universe. She sits at the center of the web, controlling things via the strings. In legend it is said she will one day devour the web/universe, and spin another in its place.

Egyptian mythology tells of the goddess Neith - a spinner and weaver of destiny - and associates her with the spider. She is often depicted with a weaving shuttle in her hand, or a bow and arrows, demonstrating her hunting abilities.

The spider is a trickster god in West African stories, personifying the creation deity Anansi. Associated with storytelling and wisdom, the spider causes mischief to get the upper hand in dealings with others. The retelling of these “spider tales” imparts moral lessons through the generations.

Rock art and bark paintings in Australia reveal that the indigenous cultures created spider symbols. Spiders in their webs are linked with a sacred rock and ceremony for the Rembarrnga people in central Arnhem Land. Several regional clans use spider totems in rituals.

Ancient Chinese folk culture celebrates spiders. They are thought to bring happiness in the morning, and wealth in the evening. Spiders are lucky creatures, and dubbed “happy insects”. The image of the spider features widely in art and literature in China, and spider jewelry or charms are worn to bring good luck.

In Japanese myths, the Spider Princess is a mythological spider figure called Jorōgumo. She is able to transform into a seductive woman, who entraps travelling samurai. The Spider Princess has many names, such as “binding bride” or “prostitute spider”. Jorōgumo morphs into a beautiful woman to beguile warriors into marrying her. Sometimes the Spider Princess appears to carry a baby, which turns out to be her egg-sack.

Whatever you believe about the spider, it can be beautiful to some and creepy to others, fodder for spooky books, terrifying monsters for scary movies,  and gods and goddesses to peoples in the past, there is so much truth and myth about it.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Supernatural Friday: Mythological Beasts Proven True

Cryptozoology is the study of creatures whose existence is rumored, but unproven. With Kong: Skull Island releasing March 10th, it is hard to imagine a giant fifty-foot gorilla, other than from myths, movies and horror novels. But then, once upon a time, normal sized gorillas were the stuff of legends. So, lets discuss what creatures of mythology proved to be real.

Gorilla: Explorers returned from jungles of Africa to tell stories about hairy, giant man-beasts of terrible strength and temper, with a nasty habit of abducting and raping women. Up until the twentieth century, many of these tales were ignored or discounted. One of the earliest written accounts of gorillas may come from Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer who documented his travels along the African coast in 500 B.C. Hanno describes a tribe of “gorillae”, roughly meaning “hairy people”. It is unknown whether Hanno referred to gorillas, another species of ape, or humans. In 1902, German officer Captain Robert von Beringe shot one of these “man-apes” in the Virunga region of Rwanda. Bringing it back to Europe with him, he introduced the world to a new species of ape: the mountain gorilla.

Okapi: The Okapi was well known to the Ancient Egyptians (although it was not native to Egypt). Also to the pygmies who lived in the same central African forests. Europeans, however, didn’t believe the pygmies’ stories. They considered the okapi to be a mythical creature, calling it “The African Unicorn.”
Sir Henry Johnston, who became the governor of Uganda, read Stanley’s book about the animal and became obsessed over it. He managed to find tracks from the animal, along with pieces of striped skin, which according to the pygmies, belonged to the mysterious okapi. Johnston sent the skin to London. There, scientists took interest in the beast and hypothesized about its identity. Was it an unknown species of jungle zebra? Or maybe a late surviving, prehistoric Hipparion proto-horse? Since they didn’t have a better specimen, they named the animal Equus johnstoni, assuming that it was a member of the horse and zebra genus.
It was in 1901, that Johnston obtained an entire skin and a skull. He sent them to London and surprised the scientists. The animal appeared like some fossilized remains of an ancient giraffe relative, found in 1838 in Greece. The mystery was solved; the mysterious African unicorn did exist.

Giant Panda: Scientists call these adorable, famous animals “charismatic megafauna.” They were practically unknown for centuries, even in their homeland, China. Chinese artists had depicted black bears and bamboo forests since ancient times, but the giant panda was never depicted until the 20th century. Rumors and reports of a strange “white bear” found in Chinese mountains were regarded as myths until 1869. Then, French missionary Armand David sent the skin of a hunted specimen to Europe. That was when pandas were accepted by scientists as a real animal.
Giant pandas were finally seen alive by a European in 1916. German zoologist Hugo Weigold got to see and buy a cub. As an interesting side note, giant pandas  are known in China as the Great Bear-Cat; this is because pandas have vertical pupils, just like cats, but unlike other bears. They were once thought to be giant, aberrant relatives to the raccoon, but DNA testing has proven what seemed obvious from the beginning; that they are a true member of the bear family.

Takin: In the well-known Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason is sent by his evil uncle Pelias to get hold of the Golden Fleece. This was the fleece of a semi-divine ram named Chrysomallus, sired by Poseidon himself. Some experts believe that the legend of the Golden Fleece was inspired by the golden coat of a real animal, the Golden Takin. This animal is found in the Himalayas. 
Although described by western scientists in 1850, the Takin has always been somewhat of a legend; in Bhutan, its origins are said to be supernatural. It is said that in the 15th century, a powerful and wise Lama visited the country and was urged by his followers to perform a miracle. Eventually the Lama accepted, and told them to bring him a whole goat and a whole cow. People did as asked. To the amazement of everyone, the Lama ate all the meat of the goat and cow leaving only bones. Once he finished his meal, the Lama took parts of the cow and the goat, putting them together to make a new animal. With a snap of his fingers, he gave it life. The strange resulting animal was the Takin. Due to this interesting legend, the Takin is a most revered creature in Bhutan, and it is considered the national animal.

Giant Squid: One of the most famous mythical sea monsters is the Kraken. Legends of this formidable denizen of the sea, armed with powerful tentacles strong enough to sink a ship, were told in Norway and Iceland; These tales were based on sightings of the giant squid (Architeuthis). Since the giant squid prefers to live in abyssal waters, it is almost never seen alive by humans. Dead specimens have washed ashore, and so the existence of the creature has been reported since ancient times; Pliny the Elder mentioned them in his treaty on Natural History, and said that they could grow up to 9.1 meters long (now we know they get bigger.).
In 1861, the crew of the Alecton dispatch steamer had a close encounter with a giant squid. They managed to get hold of a piece of the animal’s tail, but were ridiculed by scientists, who told them that such a creature was “against the laws of nature.” Today, the giant squid maintains its semi-legendary status. It was in 2004 that the giant squid was finally photographed in its natural habitat; the first video was taken two years later.

Komodo Lizard: There is a tale that Komodo dragons were discovered by a downed pilot from WWI who swam to a remote island in Indonesia and reported seeing giant reptiles in the island’s coasts. No one believed him. Other stories told that the dragons had already been seen before, and that eventually, the rumors of “land crocodiles” and “prehistoric monsters” roaming Komodo and the nearby islands became too persistent to be ignored. in 1910, a Dutch lieutenant decided to go to the island and get evidence of the creature’s existence. He succeeded, and sent a photo and the skin of a gigantic lizard to Bogor, Java, where the director of the Zoological Museum described it formally for the first time.
Later, in 1926, an expedition to Komodo resulted in the capture of two live specimens. Due to this expedition, it inspired one of the most famous movies of all times, King Kong. The movie’s director even wanted to have Komodo dragons in the movie! But proven not possible, he replaced them with animated dinosaurs. Komodo dragons are the world’s largest lizards. One modern day myth about them is that they lack venom, and that their victims die of blood poisoning thanks to the deadly bacteria in the dragon’s mouth. Although it is true that dragons have plenty of dangerous bacteria on their saliva, recent studies have suggested that they are also able to produce powerful, hemorrhage and paralysis-inducing venom, making them the largest venomous animals alive.

Tiger: The ancient Greek believed the tiger to be a legendary animal, known as the manticore (from Persian martya, “man”, and xwar, “comer”). It makes sense for the tiger to be the inspiration for the manticore. The latter was said to live in India and south eastern Asia (the tiger’s main range), and to be lion-like in size and appearance, but with reddish fur. It was also said to have the tail of a scorpion, which could have been inspired by the black rings and black tip in the tiger’s tail. And it was reported to be so fierce that it would snatch adult men from villages and drag them into the jungle, after which they were never seen again. Same was often the case with the great cat.

Manatee: Manatees have inspired sightings of mermaids. Even Christopher Columbus was duped, writing in his logbook: On the previous day [8 Jan 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.
Manatees are known to perform "tail stands" in shallow water, which would allow them to rise vertically out of the sea. And their jointed forelimbs allow the manatee to hold objects and bring food directly to their mouths as well as swim. It's entirely possible that from a distance, a manatee may look like a human treading water. Or a mermaid.